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Terri Hendrix

Although 2016 year will mark the 20th anniversary of Two Dollar Shoes, the winsome debut album that officially launched her career, Terri Hendrix probably won’t have a whole lot of time to celebrate that landmark. On top of her commitment to building the OYOU (an acronym for Own Your Own Universe) non-profit arts center in the Texas Hill Country, the Texas singer-songwriter (recently inducted into the San Marcos Women’s Hall of Fame) plans to spend 2016 rewarding her longtime fanbase with an epic bounty she calls “Project 5”: five distinct but thematically linked releases (four albums and a book), all due in the next 12 months. To call Project 5 the most ambitious undertaking of Hendrix’s career — not to mention unprecedented in her field — would be an understatement, but the pioneering independent artist has never shied away from a challenge. Going all the way back to that first album, she’s bypassed labels and third-party distribution her entire career, opening her own e-commerce store long before it became the norm and successfully funding every album she’s ever made through straight pre-orders on her own website alone. It’s a proud tradition that continues this December, with Hendrix now taking pre-orders for Project 5’s first album, Love You Strong, set for release Feb. 5 on Wilory Records.

As the “first piece” of the collection, Love You Strong offers a tantalizing glimpse of just how bold Project 5 really is, not just in scope but in the way it reveals a side of Terri that even her most diehard fans have never heard or seen before. Hendrix describes the album — her first since 2010’s acclaimed Cry Till You Laugh — as “a collection of songs that put the concept of love under the microscope.” Her focus, though, is not on flowers and valentines or even broken hearts, but rather on the marriage of friendship, loyalty, and love as represented by the heart, hands, and crown of the timeless Irish Claddagh symbol on the album’s cover. It’s also the most unguarded album she’s ever made. “As a songwriter, I had to cut my chicken wings and leave my comfort zone to tell the stories I wanted to tell,” she explains, referencing the carpe diem gauntlet she casts at her feet amidst the stomping rhythm of “Northern Lights.”

The title track, “Love You Strong,” is no ordinary “moon/June” love song: it’s a paean to truly selfless commitment and sacrifice, inspired by her father’s devotion as caregiver to her mother. “No matter how much he loves her, he can’t love her well, but he can love her strong,” Terri explains. The stories she tells here range from the deeply personal to the universal, but they all address inner strength through times of struggle — and every one of them hits its emotional mark head on with heart exposed.

Although not without moments of levity (most notably “Fifty Shades of Hey,” a self-effacing anthem about embracing middle age with humor, grace, and a tongue-in-cheek chorus even 20-something millennials can sing along to), Love You Strong does not shrink or shy away from confronting the uncomfortable. “Feel the Time” surges with conviction over an urgent Celtic groove, but the song’s bittersweet denouement hints at a collision course with mortality. “Calle De Los Niños” paints a haunting portrait of a traditional Mexican funeral for a child lost to violence. But like the grieving father’s faith that his son will rise again — and the protagonist’s “I’d bet on me to win if I were you” resolution in the “The Rant” — a strong undercurrent of hope and stubborn strength runs throughout the album. In both “Earth-Kind Rose” and “Found,” the human spirit takes a beating but blooms resilient, “reaching for the light” with dignified grace under pressure. A defiant dignity also shines through “The Texas Star,” Hendrix’s stirring tribute to Ann Richards, Barbara Jordan, Molly Ivins, and Liz Carpenter, four Lone Star women of uncommon idealistic fortitude whose legacies outshine partisan politics.

As befits a song for highly esteemed Texas women, “The Texas Star” is graced by special guest Eliza Gilkyson on harmony vocals. The rest of the album’s stellar cast includes producer Lloyd Maines on guitars, pedal steel, dobro, mandolin, banjo, and papoose; Glenn Fukunaga on bass; Pat Manske and John Silva on drums and percussion; Riley Osbourn on keyboards; Dennis Ludiker on fiddle; Drew Womack on harmony vocals; and Bukka Allen on accordion. Hendrix herself plays guitars, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, papoose, and harmonica. Hendrix and Maines have now recorded more than a dozen albums together, but never one quite like Love You Strong. By design, it’s the most stylistically straight-forward album Hendrix has ever made — a bold move in itself for an artist usually inclined to dance all over the genre map with a freewheeling eclecticism that her fans have embraced from day one. But as Hendrix explains, “I was really thinking abut this album as a whole and how everything fit together, musically and thematically, and these songs just didn’t lend themselves to leaving the earthy parameters of storytelling.”

Hendrix’s fans can rest assured, though, that her free spirit is far from tamed. After all, Love You Strong is only the first leg of her Project 5 “sonic marathon,” with three more albums still to come in 2019: The Slaughterhouse Sessions (harmonica-driven acoustic blues and gospel); Who Is Ann? (an EP of lyric-driven electronica that Hendrix calls “Techno-Logical”); and Talk to a Human (another “songwriter” record that addresses both communication and the lack thereof in this social media driven world.) At year’s end, she will also release an autobiography chronicling her journey as a performing singer-songwriter living with a seizure disorder. Each of the albums and the book all share common themes with each other, and they are all meant to fit together to form a cohesive whole. Upon completion, the big picture will reveal a full-dimensional portrait of the artist not just as a proudly independent songwriter celebrating 20 years of “owning her own universe,” but as a wizened middle-aged woman comfortable enough in her own skin to bare her heart, soul and vulnerabilities unafraid — and determined to live her time left on earth with passion, purpose, and principle.